Where does the flesh end and the soul begin? Is The Self an extension of the body, or an altogether separate entity? And what is left of The Self when it is untethered from the social and cultural context in which it is formed? These questions are the fuel that drives We are the Flesh, the feature length debut of a 25 year old provocateur named Emiliano Rocha Minter.
As far as debuts go, this one grabs your attention. We are the Flesh is a work of madness; a methodical, intentional madness that steadily builds from a disquieting whisper to a frenzied roar. This is not a film that I will be forgetting anytime soon.
Noé Hernández stars as Mariano, a wild-eyed hermit living in a squalid flat in some nameless Mexican city. There are hints that society has collapsed, although it is never addressed directly. When we first meet him, he is hard at work distilling a mysterious substance, which he excitedly refers to, over and over again, as “gas”. Clearly there is something not right with Mariano, although the extent of his madness is obscured from us at first. Soon, a brother-and-sister wander into Mariano’s otherwise abandoned building. They are looking for shelter and food. Mariano agrees to let them stay with him, in exchange for their labor. They follow his direction and he has them transforming the flat into a giant paper mache cave, where the rest of the film takes place in. Mariano begins playing mind games with the brother and sister, and the three form a kind of perverse family unit. Soon, he is coercing them into escalating acts of depravity and violence.
It should go without saying that this film is not for everybody. Taboos are shattered with glee. The sex (and there is a lot of it) is incestuous and explicit (it freely borrows from the visual language of pornography, although its intent is not sexual gratification); There are long, unbroken close-ups of genitals. Cannibalism is engaged in; blood and flesh is consumed.
The film is technically impressive, and Minter possesses a confident style that is doubly impressive given his young age. with a The film opens in muted grays and blues, and as our family moves further into depravity, the colors become more vivid, saturated, and psychedelic. And Minter uses the space of the flat, and its transformed state as womb-like cave to great effect.
Hernández is great here; equally mesmerizing and terrifying. He’s a truly satanic presence, in the most romantic sense of the word. There is a dark seductive power to his insane ravings; almost something heroic to his moral choice to abandon all morality.
But what does it all mean? I’m not entirely sure. The film has an allegorical feel to it. Some of the themes touched upon here seem to come from a distinctly Mexican perspective; and seem to speak directly to a Mexican audience in a cultural context that I am not familiar with. Ultimately, I get the sense that Minter indulges the depravity because he can. Because the imagination has the capacity to stare into the void without getting lost in the process. Because there is a feeling of liberation that comes from rebelling against repressive cultural and social constraints, even though we willing accepts those constraints, in order to keep the darker human urges in check. The film is a jolt to the senses. But there’s a lot of dark humor, and more than a little irony in Minter’s absolutely nihilistic depiction of the human condition. Keep in mind, Minter isn’t coercing siblings into fucking each other, or cannibalizing people he drags in off the street. He’s making films.
And Minter’s film follows in the footsteps of the fearless, transgressive films of the mid-1970s like Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), Oshima’s In the Relm of the Senses (1976), John Waters’ Pink Flamingos (1972), or Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). I’m hesitant to place We are the Flesh on that same level; time will tell how it holds up.
Then again, I might be giving it too much credit. What I do know is that I found myself equally horrified and exhilarated.